Ashbury Heights

[Take Cair Paramour sleeve]"Take Cair Paramour" (Album, 2010)

Out Of Line

Reading through the sleeve notes, it’s quite apparent that this second long-player from Sweden’s Ashbury Heights was produced under difficult conditions. Which, when you initially listen to it quite surprising as overall this is a jaunty collection of electro/pop songs that impress upon the listener an irrepressible chutzpah. It’s certainly a lot lighter than the previous album, the impressive debut Three Cheers For The Newlydeads.

Recorded between August 2007 and March 2010, during which time main man Anders Hagström moved no less than six times. He also changed a band member, and their distributor went bankrupt. All of which seems to have contributed to something close to a breakdown for Anders. So, to begin with, we should be pleased that we actually have anything at all to hear. Hardly surprising then that in the sleeves notes he says when he was “at the end of my rope” that producer John Fryer “Managed to take one epic mess and turn into something recognizable, reminding us all of how effortless this music used to be”. It is the most insightful comment as under closer scrutiny that effortlessness on Take Cair Paramour has quite frequently been lost inside tracks that often sound excessively reworked, remixed and over engineered. Take the very first song Anti Ordinary whose wonderous chorus is buried amid busy and too loud percussion. Indeed, could even be that this is an album to which the phrase "a flawed masterpiece" might be applied.

Seems Hagström has been listening to the Scissor Sisters (cf. Crescendo) and Goldfrapp too (cf. Dancer’s Nocturne) since the release of his previous material and the inspiration (wherever it did really come from) certainly pays off. Co-vocalist Kari Berg's voice lacks the edge and distinctive qualities of her predecessor but the vocal arrangements and sharing of duties is as astute as ever and definitely one of Hagström's special talents. There are plenty of thrilling moments to savour and relish across the fourteen songs collected together here (there's another nine if you pick up the limited edition 2-disc digi-pack release). Since this was released there's been a bit of an unsavoury public spat between Hagström and the Side-Line website over (perceived lack of support from) label Out Of Line (which I'm not about to fuel any further here) but it seems that Ashbury Heights may have run its course. Can't believe for a moment that Hagström on the other hand could be silent for ever more. I certainly hope not for the world would be just a little more difficult to bear without his writing and performing. 7/10

Rob Dyer (November 2010)

[Three Cheers For The Newlydeads sleeve]"Three Cheers For The Newlydeads" (Album, 2007) !DSO Recommended!

Out Of Line

Ever since I first saw Swedish two-piece Ashbury Heights live at the Out of Line festival tour in London in 2007 (and being wowed by them) I'd planned on picking up their first long player. Two years later and a recent trip to Berlin, the home of the Out of Line label, seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up a copy of Three cheers for the newlydeads so a pilgrimage to the label's official store in the German capital furnished me with the goods. Back in 2007, Ashbury Heights were Anders Hagström, the main creative force and former girlfriend Yasmine Uhlin. Both sharing vocal duties - sometimes in unison, sometimes alternating, sometimes solo. Late last year Uhlin left replaced by Kari Berg who has taken up a similar role.

Demonstrating their seriousness, instead of just self-producing their debut as most others have done, Ashbury Heights not only sought an outside producer but managed to bag none other than John Fryer. Fryer was producer on numerous seminal early classics on both the Mute and 4AD labels, himself a member of 4AD band This Mortal Coil. He was also responsible for the same role on Nine Inch Nails' hugely successful Pretty Hate Machine album (among many others). His clever and distinctive engineering and mixing touches that permeate his best work are certainly in evidence here. Three Cheers For The Newlydeads is definitely another example of Fryer at the peak of the application of his skills. The finished results then have the contemporary sound of Ashbury Heights perfectly complimented and enhanced by Fryer's efforts who, in a welcome way, introduces a slightly retro feel to some of the production.

To take nothing away from our Swedish hosts, this would have been an impacting debut whether Fryer was involved or not due to the confident and capable songwriting. Here are fifteen songs where the success rate is around 80%. There are only a couple of weaker entries I'd have lost to reduce the sheer volume and up the impact further at the same time. Curiously, Stormbringer, a track focused upon by the label PR and which garnered much club play, is pretty much the weakest track. Although it's easy to see why this received so much attention as it is a simple attempt to create a club floorfiller; something that Ashbury Heights needn't bother attempting. It sounds too genetically modified, twisting too much that which makes them so darn good in the first place. Better to leave the DJs to try that bit harder and seek out the countless other tracks that so expertly balance head and heart. It is possible to educate and entertain simultaneously.

All songs are sung in English and all have that charming slight intonation brought by non-native English speakers that adds to the delivery of the already competant and entertaining lyrics. So Fryer's production magic is simply the rich icing on an already perfectly-formed cake. Stylistically, there's a definate sense of the early New Wave about things through big sounding production and warm analogue synths. The occasionally deadpan male/female vocal delivery also echoes The Human League at their poppy heights of Dare. There are contemporary parallels too, with Sebastian Lee Philipp's work, formerly as Silence Is Sexy, now operating as half of Noblesse Oblige. From conception, through construction and delivery, this is bold and confident. This is exemplified by the front sleeve: green-tinged photographic artwork featuring the two, stylishly-attired members' play-fighting with one another. It instantly promises playful but distinctive quality and Three Cheers For The Newlydeads delivers on that promise with aplomb. 8/10

Rob Dyer (August 2009)

See also:

Depeche Mode
Noblesse Oblige
Silence Is Sexy

Soft Cell
The Human League